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I AM – the Name of God?

On another thread, about whether Jesus claimed to be God, the subject of Jesus saying “I am” in the Gospel of John came up, and since that comments section was rather cluttered already, it was suggested that it might be worth creating a separate post on the subject.

I thought it was a great idea.

The question that was asked had to do with whether “I am” was thought to be a name of God in this period. But I’d rather begin with the Gospel of John, because it seems to me that, even if no one previously had suggested that “I am” was a name of God, the author of that Gospel may have understood the phrase that way.

The author of the Gospel of John was not the first to suggest that Jesus had had the divine name bestowed upon him. In Philippians 2:6-11, the name that is above every name is said to be bestowed upon Jesus when he is highly exalted by God. Despite what you may sometimes hear, there is no way that any Jew thought that the name “Joshua” was the “name above every name.” The only name that fits the latter description is the divine name, thought by many to be too holy to utter. It is presumably that divine name, Yahweh, that is hinted at through the use of “Lord” as a circumlocution, as was frequent then as also today.

In Exodus 3, the divine name Yahweh is explained in terms of “I am that I am” (or several other variations, including “I am the one who is” in the Septuagint). The repeated “I am” also becomes a phrase by which the one God declares his unique existence in Deutero-Isaiah.

Whether anyone in John’s time thought that “I am” was the divine name is debatable. But the author of the Gospel of John provides hints that he understood it this way.

The author of John holds a different view than the author of the hymnic passage in Philippians 2. John 17:12 depicts Jesus as saying, “While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me.” According to John, Jesus not only already has the divine name during his earthly existence, but he uses that name to protect the disciples.

In John’s version of the Gethsemane story, we see the climactic example of this. Jesus utters “I am” – which could simply mean “It is I” – or in the context, perhaps a better rendering would be “that’s me.” Yet the fact that those who’ve come to arrest him fall to the ground at the pronouncement has long led interpreters to understand that there is another layer besides that possible mundane meaning of the phrase. And so ought this not to be understood as an example of Jesus protecting the disciples through the name which God gave him?

If “I am” is or stands for the divine name in John, then John 8 makes much more sense, in my opinion. One of the puzzles of that chapter, as C. K. Barrett famously pointed out, is that it has Jesus say an absolute “I am” (puzzling his hearers at first, and leading them to attempt to stone him at the end), but then go on to say that he does nothing of himself, but only the will of the one who sent him.

If Jesus is saying “I am God” then the statement of submission is bizarre. If Jesus just says “It’s me” then the reaction of the hearers, even if mistaken on one level, still seems bizarre. But if Jesus utters “I am” because he is the agent of God who has been bestowed the divine name, then a lot of pieces seem to me to fall into place, and the response of those who hear him reflects the same sort of misunderstanding that we see in chapters 5 and 10 of the same Gospel.

I explore the above in a lot more detail in my book John’s Apologetic Christology, which was based on my doctoral dissertation, which you can access online via Durham’s online repository of theses.

  • Jaco van Zyl

    Hi James,
    I am in agreement with you that having the divine name bestowed upon someone was acceptable but unique practice in ancient monotheistic/monolatrous Judaism. No issue there. But I still have an issue with your proposal above that is was the case in Jn 8.58, for several reasons (including why your points above do not convince me):
    1) The LXX had ho On as God’s name in Ex. 3:14. And when Moses was said to reveal that Name to Israel, he had to tell them that ho On (not “Ego eimi”) had sent him.
    2) The syntax used is not that of typical nomination. If Jesus wanted to say that he was the I AM, “Ego eimi ho EGO EIMI” would have been used instead.
    3) His having the name could have referred to his being “conceived” as son in the Prologue. John 17:12 does not by necessity require an explicit admission of bearing the name. John 8:58 is not such an admission anyway. That logos/spirit possession could have been understood as the official summoning of this man as Name-bearer could also have been used to explain 17:12.
    4) That ego eimi has been understood normatively is shown in John 9:9.
    5) In the Gethsemane story, the officials’ falling down after Jesus saying “I am” could have been for reasons other than uttering the divine name. As the “light” which the “darkness” couldn’t overcome, Jesus clearly subdued those in darkness. This division of those in darkness and those in the light and how the darkness couldn’t overwhelm darkness (1:5) is continued even here. The writer could have used this event to demonstrate that.
    6) Still in line with this theme of light vs. darkness and how those who love darkness would not accept it (3:19), the writer could have used the whole discourse in chapter 8 to demonstrate this. I don’t think using 8:58 as the one and only trigger for their response is convincing. The whole chapter could have been a build-up to their response. Their response need not have been in perfect harmony with Jewish Law. Darkness of their judgments is repetitively shown in the Gospel (cp. their equally unwarranted and wicked response in 12:10). Their not accepting that Jesus was the intended one, the authentic and true light since the beginning, even before Abraham, could equally have elicited their wicked response.

    The more I consider the reasons in support of this Divine Name proposal in Jn 8:58, the more reasons I see for it not to be so.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thanks for your comment. It sounds as though you understood me to be saying that every time “I am” appears, it has something to do with the divine name. That was not my claim.

      I’m not sure why you take the Septuagint’s rendering as being decisive for the author of this Gospel. Schuchard’s work certainly indicates the author’s use of the LXX, but the on it/on him play reflected in chapter 1 requires some knowledge of the Hebrew text.

      Why do you think that Jesus would have said “I am the I am” if he was given the use of the divine name in his role as agent? And wouldn’t such a statement, among other things, ruin a double entendre of the sort of which the author was clearly fond?

      • Jaco van Zyl

        Hi James,
        Thanks. I’m not so sure that knowledge of a specific TEXT is necessary to come to the conclusions in chapter 1. If Hebraic thought patterns were what the writer would have defaulted to, then regardless of the specific text, he could still have made his point while keeping his preference for the LXX.
        I simply don’t see how the sentence, Prin Avraam egenesthai, ego eimi meant anything else that explicitly stating that he had been the one, the true design of what theophoric humanity looked like, since before Abraham came on the scene. It is a radical claim – enough to enrage his opponents. Double entendre is such a subtle figure of speech. And double entendre is recognised after alternatives (the basis for the ambiguity) have been established. Not the other way around. I don’t think one can use double entendre to prove a specific point. The specific point needs to be demonstrated first.
        Having said that, and if a double entendre is to be sought there, I think there is one. But the ambiguity does not lie in the ego eimi itself. Firstly, the explicit statement is that Jesus ‘has been [the intended one] [since] before Abraham has been born. His eminence is shown by this protology. It is further emphasized by the apparent contrast between someone with a beginning (Abraham) and one whose intention has been since eternity. The idea of notional pre-existence such as was the case with Torah (which God consulted before creating) seems to have been a scheme likely associated with his expression.
        Again, for several reasons, do I not see the divine name even hinted at here. To say, prin Avraam egenesthai, ego eimi ho On would probably have made the expression less disputable.
        Thanks (and I’m really not trying to be difficult here).

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I’m not sure that I understand your first point. Are you saying that you don’t think John reflects the tradition of interpretation of the Jacob story that we also encounter in rabbinic texts, playing on the ambiguity in the Hebrew as to whether the angels were ascending and descending “on it” or “on him”?

          Many would find the background to the Johannine “I am” less in the statement “I am that I am” and more in the “I am (he)” statements in Isaiah and elsewhere. Do you have any thoughts on that? See further Catrin Williams’ study on the subject, I Am He.

          • Jaco van Zyl

            Thanks, James. No, I did not have the Jacob story in mind. What I meant was, that even though the writer may have thought in Hebraic (mystical) terms, he was not necessarily bound to a Hebrew or Aramaic (targummic) text. The writer “plays around” with so much freedom, evoking metaphor, parallelism, typology, ambiguity, etc., that he could and did use what was at his disposal to write the text.
            Yes, many have found the John 8:58/Ex. 3:14 link to be untenable. But then the whole argument for a “hint” at a Name collapses anyway, because the other alternative, namely the Isaiah expressions, are not used or understood to be a Name, but understood in a normative sense, as in John 9:9. Moreover, his ego eimi modifies the previous clause and is not a stand-alone expression. That Jesus’ making the statement in RELATION TO ABRAHAM’S BIRTH is significant and is often ignored. The traditional interpretation has, in my opinion, been a red herring which concealed a more open approach to the expression.
            Thanks for the reference to the Williams’ study!

            • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

              There was rabbinic discussion of a phrase in Genesis, which was taken to suggest that Abraham had been given a vision of the days of the Messiah. Whether he is referring to the Messiah having pre-existed in heaven, or Abraham being given a vision of the future, or focused on the God who transcends Jesus’ time and Abraham’s and all others, is ambiguous, and is perhaps intentionally so, in order that the crowds may misunderstand, as they do throughout the Gospel.

              What do you think that the author depicts Jesus as referring to when he says that he kept the disciples safe “in your name, the name you gave me”?

              • Jaco van Zyl

                Thanks James,

                Ah, yes. And I agree that they misunderstood. What they misunderstood and what he intended them to understand need to be determined, indeed.

                On your second point, the bestowal of God’s Name upon an angelic/human agent should take at some event or ceremony. Invisible to some, but blazingly visible to others (cp. 12:40). Taking the syntax of Jer. 1:5 (identical structure as Jn 8:58), an ancient resolve/decision by God could be referred to, which he would receive at his Royal Session in heaven. The certainty of the event could be referred to proleptically. Otherwise, the ancient resolve could have been realised when Jesus was possessed by God’s spirit/logos as the event at which he received God’s name. There is an apparent double entendre here, which realised eschatology is.
                What do you say?

                • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                  If I’ve understood you, then there certainly is at times an equivalence between Name, Word, and Spirit, as all ways of referring to the divine presence, as I talk about in John’s Apologetic Christology.

                  But that doesn’t seem to counter the possibility that “I am” is an indication that Jesus is the one who bears the divine name.

                  Any thoughts on how Isaiah 43:25 and 51:12 in the LXX might relate to this?

                  • Jaco van Zyl

                    I agree that divine presence or glimpses or infusion (sometimes the traditional terms get used and mis-used, which obscures what I think used to be the meaning) were expressed in various ways: Angels in Palestinian Judaism; Wisdom/Logos in Hellenistic Judaism; Name, glory, shekinah of God in Rabbinic Judaism.
                    This certainly does not counter the possibility that Jesus’ receiving God’s Name is equivalent to his receiving God’s spirit/logos/wisdom. We are in full agreement here. Whether ego eimi was used to mean Name, I battle to see.
                    Ego eimi, ego eimi ho exaleiphon tas anomias sou…(43:25)
                    Ego eimi, ego eimi ho parakalon se…(51:12)
                    It is clear that the ego eimi’s are not used as Names. They are used in the normative sense. Could there be a link between Jesus’ use in 8:58 and the Isaiah texts? At least the whole Ego eimi = Divine Name is out of the way. If the author wanted to show that Jesus identifies himself as the one doing Yahweh-stuff, I am fine with that. Jesus as the one acting in God’s stead is good first-century divine agency. But then Jesus is the way, truth and life JUST AS Yahweh is. He is the Good Shepherd JUST AS Yahweh is. That he has been before Abraham was JUST AS Yahweh was? And to use Abraham’s birth as a benchmark somehow?
                    Let me ask this, Why wasn’t it an amazing claim that Jesus has been the intended one since eternity (the Torah as Design Plan) and that, in referring, not to the Patriarch Abraham but to the Patriarch’s beginning as a baby he showed his relative superiority (hyperbole) ? This even allows for him to bear God’s Name without even hinting at it using the ego eimi.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      It is certainly possible that the author of John could have read Isaiah as saying “I am ‘I AM’, the one who…”

                      I’m not sure that I follow your argument in the rest of what you wrote.

                    • Jaco van Zyl

                      Thanks, James. I suppose it is possible that the author could have understood the double ego eimi as “I am I AM.” I suppose a midrashic reading of these texts gave him freedom to understand and to apply them in creative ways. My argument above follows from not understanding the text in such a way. I read in Catrin Williams’ volume on pp. 79 and 80 how the doubling of the “ani” in Deuteronomy (a confessional text for Samaritans which the author of John probably was familiar with), followed by declaratory phrases indicate exclusive divinity. This could have been a mere variation in understanding the double “ani” as also in Isaiah LXX (ego eimi) or the way the author of John read it (I am “I AM”) was a unique variation.
                      The insistence of the inherited “divine Name” understanding of John 8:58 to hinge on the subtlety of double entendre, and the possible variant/midrashic understanding of the double “ego eimi” is exceptionally weak. The “divine Name” proposal in John 8:58, whether one understands it accurately (“bearing” the name) or conversely, fallaciously as is often heard in Evangelical proof-texting, is presented with way more confidence than it deserves. I think much more thinking should be going into this. A protological reading and understanding of the text should be much rather explored and sophisticated. Just as James Dunn and other eminent scholars reconsidered the notion of pre-existence in the NT, the same should be done with this “divine Name” proposal in 8:58.
                      Again, I’m not trying to be difficult. Thanks.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      If understanding “I AM” on the lips of Jesus to involve Jesus’ use of the divine name is “weak” then please answer my previous question about where John depicts Jesus as bearing the divine name. Or do you think that the author threw this in towards the end as an afterthought and gave no thought to what the name was or where the evidence that Jesus had it could be seen in his words and actions?

                      Positing double entendre in a work that delights time and again in double entendre is by no means a stretch.

                    • Jaco van Zyl

                      Thanks, James. Thankyou also for bearing with me.

                      To answer your question, let’s recap and see whether the
                      Divine Name understanding of Jn. 8:58 is as certain as has been traditionallybelieved. Each key-point in favour of
                      the proposal is summarised and determined to be either possible or certain.

                      1) Double entendre

                      Possible. Yes, the writer was fond of using this figure of speech. But a double entendre can only exist when there is no or little reason to doubt it. Such certainty requires two
                      things: firstly established general schemes the writer had at his disposal when using ambiguity and secondly specific terms and expressions in the text which would trigger these schemes. Double entendre cannot just be anywhere we’d like it to be. Both the general and specific aspects need to be satisfied and should be profound enough to outweigh competing means of understanding. In the
                      case of Jn 8:58, the general scheme was available(bearing the Divine Name as approved agent) and the proposed “trigger” for this scheme is “Ego eimi.”

                      2) Ego eimi = Divine Name

                      Possible. The link between Jn 8:58 and Ex. 3:14 is exceptionally weak, since ho On, and not Ego eimi, was used and understood to be a Name of some sort in the LXX. A stronger link between Jn. 8:58 and Ex. 3:14
                      is required than merely Ego eimi, if NAME is what the writer wanted to trigger. An alternative proposal is the
                      double “ego eimi” in several other places in the LXX. In these texts understanding the double ego eimi as “Ego eimi EGO EIMI” is again a possibility among other possible
                      understandings of the text. The normative understanding, as shown by Catrin Williams, would have been exclusive
                      divinity in the case of Yahweh. A possible understanding, as well as competing normative understanding of LXX
                      texts weaken the proposal.

                      The above argument, namely locating OT texts which Jn 8:58 could be linked with is in itself a possible understanding against the competing normative understanding of self-identification which the clause “Prin
                      Avraam egenesthai” also warrants.

                      3) John 17:12 requiring explicit admission of bearing the name

                      Possible. But not necessarily. If John 17:12 requires a
                      more explicit admission of bearing the Name, 8:58 isn’t it, since it is NOT explicit. It is suggested only if the
                      above two premises are sufficiently satisfied. Moreover, 17:12 does not require an explicit admission at all. Representing God equals bearing his name. The prologue, 3:33, and chapters 5 and 6 all depict Jesus as the one uttering divine Logos, having the seal of God (which the rabbis understood to be aleph, mem, tau or “TRUTH”) and speaking and acting in God’s name. These occurrences
                      are more than sufficient to satisfy 17:12.

                      These three points can of course be elaborated upon. I might include them in a thesis one day. So to answer the question whether Jesus used the divine name in 8:58, I’d say, “maybe, maybe not, but definitely not as certain as what has been traditionally proposed.” This warrants an investigation into alternative suggestions and a sophistication of these. Jesus could have used the term to indicate the Jews’ perceptive darkness, just as he did in his discourse with Nicodemus. Deliberately using 8:58 to shock if falsely understood to mean literal pre-existence while intentional pre-existence was implied. And as always, James, I am open to be refuted. Fortunately my
                      conviction is not salvation-driven, but I do required strong arguments. So what you propose does not threaten my Christology.

                      So if I get convinced of this proposal in future, you’ll be the first to hear from me.

                    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                      It is certainly not as certain :-) as some have claimed it to be. I too am open to the possibility of being wrong about this. I’ll let you know if, in my work on John’s Christology, I come across or come up with anything else related to this.

                    • Jaco van Zyl

                      Thanks for a great discussion.

  • Sean Garrigan

    Hi James,

    Thank you for taking my suggestion and giving the EGO EIMI/Divine Name question it’s own blog entry. It certainly deserves one! :-)

    My schedule is extremely tight right now, and has been for some time, actually, but I’ll try and do justice to the question, even if only in snippets. I’d like to begin with this:

    “If Jesus is saying ‘I am God’ then the statement of submission is bizarre. If Jesus just says ‘It’s me’ then the reaction of the hearers, even if mistaken on one level, still seems bizarre. But if Jesus utters ‘I am’ because he is the agent of God who has been bestowed the divine name, then a lot of pieces seem to me to fall into place, and the response of those who hear him reflects the same sort of misunderstanding that we see in chapters 5 and 10 of the same Gospel.”

    I couldn’t help but notice that you omitted reference to K.L. McKay’s view, which is the one I advocated in the other blog post. Before I repeat McKay’s view and explain why I find it irresistible, I want to express my agreement with your observations that it would have been bizarre for (a) Jesus to express submission immediately after saying something that constituted an implicit claim to be God, and (b) the crowd to react violently to the equivalent of “It’s me”.

    I would add, however, that, as far as I’m concerned, it would be equally bizarre for Jesus to respond to the question “How could you, a man not yet fifty years old, have seen Abraham while he rejoiced over seeing your day?” (part paraphrase) by saying the equivalent of “I’m God’s name-bearing agent”. The hackneyed phrase “What does that have to do with the price of eggs?” comes to mind;-)

    On the other hand, if we accept McKay’s observation that verse 58 is an example of the Extension from Past idiom, then Jesus’ response (a) makes perfect sense in light of the question posed, and (b) would have constituted a stoning offense if untrue. Notice how the pieces fall in place under McKay’s view:

    Verse 56 – Jesus: “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

    Verse 57 – Opponents: “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

    Verse 58 – Jesus: “The truth is, I have been in existence since before Abraham was born!”

    Jesus’ opponents inferred from his statement in verse 56 that Jesus had personally observed (first hand) Abraham rejoice over seeing his day. For Jesus to say the equivalent of “I am God’s name-bearing agent” as a response would be to utter a non sequitur. On the other hand, if we recognize the Greek idiom at work in the text and translate it the way we almost certainly would were it not for Church tradition, then Jesus’ response fits perfectly, even exquisitely in context.

    One apologist attempted to dismiss this view by saying something to the effect of, “Claiming to be really, really old wasn’t a stoning offense.” While that may be true generally speaking, offering such as a response to McKay’s argument is really rather silly. Jesus’ opponents wanted to stone him, not because a claim to be old was blasphemous, but because his claim to have been in existence since before Abraham was born could only have been viewed as a preposterous lie by them, and for Jesus to present himself as God’s living, breathing power of attorney and then proceed to utter a lie while fulfilling his commission would make God a liar. Now THAT would be construed as blasphemous, especially by those who already sought his death!

    McKay’s understanding of the Greek isn’t new, and sometimes when translators break away from committees and the unavoidable pressures such bodies sometimes exert out of allegiance to Church tradition, they’ve offered renderings that attempt to capture the idiom. Note a few examples:

    Edgar J. Goodspeed rendered vs 58, “I tell you, I existed before Abraham was born.”

    James Moffatt similarly offered, “I have existed before Abraham was born.”

    Catholic James A. Kleist, S.J. offered, “I am here — and I was before Abraham!” (In the footnote he claims that the utterance intimates eternity, but that’s not a necessary implication of the Greek).

    Charles B. Williams, whose translation was called “…the best translation of the New Testament in English”, in part because it surpassed “…all other translators of the New Testament in bringing out the tense significance of the Greek verbs” (J. R. Mantey, comments on dust jacket), offered this rendering, “I most solemnly say to you, I existed before Abraham was born.”

    In their Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, Louw and Nida offer, “before Abraham came into existence, I existed.”

    All of these are fine attempts to capture the sense of the Greek, yet only McKay’s rendering truly does it justice, as only his rendering “…expresses a state which commenced at an earlier period but still continues…”, as George Benedict Winer put it [1], or “…which indicates the continuance of an action during the past and up to the moment of speaking…[which action is]…conceived as still in progress…” as Nigel Turner put it [2].

    You might recall the question posed by William Loader, whose book [3] you perused in preparation for the writing of your thesis: “Need it [i.e. the words "I am" at 8:58] mean more than the stupendous claim: I am in existence since before Abraham?” You now know my answer to that question. ;-)

    ~Sean

    [1] A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament, Seventh Edition, p. 267
    [2] A Grammar of New Testament Greek, Vol. III, Syntax, p. 62

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I don’t have a problem with understanding the literal meaning of Jesus statement as “before Abraham was, I existed.” But the response seems to view Jesus as guilty of blasphemy and not merely insanity. And statements like “then you will know that I am…” still seem to have more to them than just “then you will know that I exist.” The oddity of the way Jesus speaks seems to me to be a pointer to another layer of meaning – which his words seem to almost always have in this Gospel.

      • Sean Garrigan

        “But the response seems to view Jesus as guilty of blasphemy and not merely insanity.”

        True, but, as I said, for an agent of God to utter a preposterous lie while simultaneously to be presenting himself as one who speaks as God’s power-of-attorney would have been considered blasphemous, esp. by those who already sought his death. You might say that Jesus’ opponents were straining to find some excuse to kill him, and they got just what they wanted when Jesus uttered words that, if untrue, would have make God a liar.

        “And statements like ‘then you will know that I am…’ still seem to have
        more to them than just ‘then you will know that I exist.’

        You’re referring to other uses of EGO EIMI in John. I think that John 8:58 is different from the other uses, because an implied predicate can typically be found or inferred in most if not all of the other contexts in which the words appear. I think it’s therefore appropriate to interpret 8:58 according to it’s own unique context.

        • Sean Garrigan

          I had said:

          “You’re referring to other uses of EGO EIMI in John. I think that John 8:58 is different from the other uses, because an implied predicate can typically be found or inferred in most if not all of the other contexts in which the words appear. I think it’s therefore appropriate to interpret 8:58 according to it’s own unique context.”

          I failed to mention a crucial point: Not only do the other EGO EIMI occurrences include a contextually-inferrable predicate, but in none of the other occurrences do we find EGO EIMI in a context that fits the Extension from Past idiom.

          ~Sean

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            You may be right that 8:58 stands out in many respects. But I’m not sure that its own unique context isn’t chapter 8 of the Gospel of John, and the Gospel of John as a whole, which says that God gave his name to Jesus. If that isn’t a reference to or doesn’t at least include his use of “I am,” then the Gospel asserts that Jesus has been given the divine name but never elaborates.

            • Sean Garrigan

              And why assume that it should elaborate? ;-) But seriously, even if there is some perceived warrant to assume that John should elaborate, we still have to take each text on its own merit and infer it’s meaning based on grammar, context, co-text, etc. How does “I am God’s name-bearing agent” answer the question to which Jesus was responding?

              Would you admit that it would be ironic (and I know you love irony, as do I!) for Jesus to utter words that constitute an exquisitely appropriate response when rendered according to a known Greek idiom, the elements of which are present in the text, yet that idiom not actually be at work here, and the meaning that flows from the idiom not be what was actually intended, despite the exquisite fit? How plausible is that?

              • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                How plausible? I’m not sure. But I like it! :-)

                I am not claiming that whenever Jesus says “I am” he is saying “I am the agent of God who bears the divine name.” I am suggesting, at most, that when Jesus utters these words, John understands it to have overtones of that which add to the significance of the words. But the story of the crossing of the sea, which had Jesus use the phrase well before John’s account was composed, shows a good example of how the author might have moved in this direction. Jesus says “I am” to indicate that it is he and not a ghost. But some have understood this self-identification to indicate something more, that he is the one with divinely-given authority to do things that only God could do, like control a storm. And so I am suggesting that the author sees in the words “I am” a powerful phrase which it was given to Jesus to use as a sign of his divinely-appointed authority, which has a literal meaning but a power that goes beyond that literal meaning, and beyond what was entailed by anyone else’s use of that same phrase (as common as it is).

      • Andrew Dowling

        “The oddity of the way Jesus speaks seems to me to be a pointer to
        another layer of meaning – which his words seem to almost always have in
        this Gospel.”

        The more I’ve looked into John the more I’m convinced it continues in some way the adoptionist Christology of Mark but with a twist . . .Jesus is God’s special selected agent, but the text is now identifying specifically the Sophia/Logos/”Spirit” within Jesus as being eternal, it was the “Word” that “became flesh and dwelled” among the Disciples. Jesus possessed the Word (or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say the Word possessed Jesus) but the Word is not a person. It’s not saying Jesus of Nazareth existed from the beginning, but God’s wisdom/purpose/spirit.

        • Sean Garrigan

          I find it truly fascinating how so many resist the answer that fits the context exquisitely, and which is in harmony with the sense of the Greek as understood by a number of world-class grammarians, but instead seek other answers, most of which seem to be instances of non sequitur at best. Tis strange, very strange indeed.

          I’ll ask again: What are the odds that the writer of GJohn would have Jesus utter words at 8:58 which constitute an exquisitely intelligible and appropriate response in context when understood according to the Greek idiom that clearly seems to be at work in the text, yet actually intend some other meaning, which is unnecessarily cryptic at best, a non sequitur at worst, or both?

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

            I would say the odds are exactly the same as the odds that the writer would have Jesus talk about water next to a well with a woman who had come to fetch water in a manner that was perfectly clear on a literal level, and yet mean something else which was cryptic.

            • Sean Garrigan

              I couldn’t help but smile at your response, because right in the middle of a conversation in which I’ve pointed out that certain interpretations of Jesus’ words would yield a non sequitur, you’ve responded to my most recent post by answering a question that I didn’t ask;-) Got to love the irony. All in good fun.

              So, to clarify, I did NOT ask: What are the odds that the writer of GJohn would present a dialogue with more than one level of meaning. What I DID ask, is…well, the question is clearly stated in my previous post:-)

              • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                Well, I don’t accept the premise of your original question. Talking with a woman at a well about water, and meaning something spiritual that is not literally water, is every bit as much “unnecessarily cryptic at best, a non sequitur at worst, or both.”

                • Sean Garrigan

                  You seem to be ignoring the most important part of my question, though. Let me ask a different question with the hope that it will help you experience Tom Wolfe’s “Aha! Phenomenon” in relation to the other question and the heart of my argument;-)

                  In the account of the woman at the well, how many verses have the elements of a known Greek idiom that, if recognized, would yield a response that follows exquisitely in light of what preceded it, yet you choose to superimpose some other, cryptic understanding in place of the one that naturally follows from the grammar?

                  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

                    The phrase “living water” is the Aramaic expression for flowing water. That’s why I think it is such a perfect example of what I think might also be going on in chapter 8.

                    • Sean Garrigan

                      Ok, well, I take it that we’ve reached an impasse, then. Thanks again for giving this subject it’s own blog entry.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I have actually argued, building on earlier arguments by Charles Talbert and Francis Watson, that the Johannine Christians thought of the Word/Spirit as coming upon Jesus when he was baptized, in a manner that matches what many would categorize as “adoptionist.”

  • Yechiel Shlipshon

    Dear Friends; In the Gospel, do not get to carried away with what is written in it. Many items are late in coming, and were included in the second version, after Nicaea. One example is Nazareth. It was unknown until after the Judea – Roman war of 64 -70, CE. So many of the items mentioned as the bowing down, are not verifiable, but make good reading.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      What on earth are you talking about, and what is your evidence for it?

    • Sean Garrigan

      I second James’s questions.

  • Michael Wilson

    James,
    I’ve really been enjoying reading the exchanges here. Your book I think is an
    important contribution on this subject and I think is fundamentally
    accurate, the NT writers do not yet equate Jesus with God. I have been
    wondering though about the development of John’s Christology, questioning how
    novel it is. I think it is not hard to see its links to Paul’s Christology, and
    I think you have pointed that out, but I wonder is also hinted at in Mark and
    is it at all likely that Jesus’ own theology is in line with the later
    Christians, even if he did not make the connection they did between his own
    personal self and the divine name, that is he doesn’t say, I AM of himself, but
    may have thought that something other than God could bear the divine name,
    perhaps his “Son of Man”.

    I was prompted by the exclamation Jesus makes when the Jewish leaders ask if he
    is the messiah at his trial. He says, “I am. and ……” I wonder if
    the belief by his judges that he blasphemed is supposed to show that the
    “I am” is blasphemous, not his claim to be coming at God’s right
    hand. It is subtle and I suppose it could be missed here. It is interesting to
    me though that Matthew and Luke both alter his response so that it reflects the
    evasive answer Jesus gives Pilate. And we have already mentioned his response while
    walking on water, I Am, instead of its me (am not sure if there is a difference
    in Greek.) Also, there is the accusation
    that he assumes God’s authority when he forgives sins and when the person calls
    him good and Jesus responds with only God is good. This could be Jesus saying,
    I’m not perfect, but I’m starting to suspect this is a cryptic saying, not that
    Jesus is a walking god or God, but that one can be identified with God to the
    degree that they are good. What do you think?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I doubt that the author of any of the Synoptic Gospels thought that Jesus saying “I am” ever meant that he was uttering the divine name or anything along those lines. But the author of the Fourth Gospel may have seen more in those texts than their authors intended.

      • Michael Wilson

        What of the line, “don’t be afraid, I am… ” in Mark’s account of the walking on the sea? Is that a typical way to phrase that in Greek, I’m not familiar with the language. I have to say, for awhile I agreed with the position that Mark had a primitive Christology, that Jedus was just the messiah, but I’m not sure anymore. If Mark, (or his source, I suspect that Mark used the same passion gospel and miracle document as John, as explained by Crossan) was trying to make points about Jesus’s relationship to God, it is cryptic, but both he and John’s Jesus is fond of cyptic statements and puzzles.

        Look, again at the line about Jesus being called “good teacher” is the take away really that it us improper to call Jesus good or that Mark is saying that Jesus was a sinner? Why does Mark include this? He else where does not elaborate on Jesus’ supposed imperfection. I wonder if there is an echonof this in John, where the point seems to be made that Jesus’ identity is revealed in his work, that he is God’s son because he dies his fathers work. I will look into this more in depth later. I have been wanting to do a study on the relationship between John and Mark, but it will have to wait. I hope I can get your help latter. In the meanwhile, have you had a chance to look over the Exodus paper?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I do think that “It is I” in Mark may have been read by the author of John as having more to it than just self-identification.

          I will try to get to the Exodus paper soon!


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